Some Thoughts on Critical Security Studies

It has become commonplace to accept that security is a ‘contested concept’. How contested, however, seems to be what is at stake for critical approaches to security. With the US Congress poised to ask for a National Intelligence Estimate on the security impacts of human-induced climate change; with terrorism, people movements and disease the focus of national security policy; and with various conceptualisations of human security informing national policy and new global norms, we are well into the ‘broadening and deepening’ phase once seen as revolutionary. At the same time, state-centric discourses of security remain very powerful, and global patterns of insecurity, violence and conflict are getting more destructive and uncontrollable.

In this light, this paper surveys some of the key insights and approaches in the broad area of critical security studies, especially the securitisation theme of the Copenhagen School and the emancipatory agenda of the Welsh School. It assesses their value and their limitations, and puts forward an argument for the value of a deeper line of critique that puts security’s ontological claims into question. Without breaking with the ideal of emancipation, this is also to question security’s status as a end, and to reveal it as a form of power which may conceal other agendas and produce insecurity. This line of critique is of use not only for rethinking state responses to military threats, secessionism, terrorism and people movements; it has value for retaining critical perspective in a time of such apparent innovation.

This is the abstract for a long “working paper” with the ANU, entitled “What Security Makes Possible: Some Thoughts on Critical Security Studies”, which was published in 2007. It was in part stimulated by my desire to survey the broad field of critical security studies, compare and contrast it to my own theory, and partly by the acceleration of a “broadening” of the security agenda, exemplified by the United Nations High Level Panel Report of 2004, the UN Security Council debate on climate change in 2007, and a range of other think tank studies on climate change and security. In 2008 the broadening agenda was visible in the UK’s 2008 National Security Strategy, and in 2011 the UN Security Council hosted a new debate on climate change which ended in a frustrating stalemate.

My paper is available here:

and here (as a PDF):

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